By Donald Wittkowski
With songs, prayers and expressions of hope that the nation is finally on its way to fulfilling his “dream,” Ocean City honored the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Saturday during an emotional ceremony.
Speakers at the city’s 28th annual King community celebration quoted from the civil rights leader’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 while calling for peace, racial harmony, justice and economic equality.
The ceremony was also marked by cautionary words that the country still suffers from serious racial, political and economic divisions that continue to test King’s legacy.
“The road ahead will not always be smooth,” said the Rev. Marcia Stanford, pastor of the Macedonia United Methodist Church. “There will be setbacks here and there.”
Stanford, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, reminded the audience in the Bill and Nancy Hughes Performing Arts Center at the Ocean City High School that Americans “have a duty to bring the nation to a paradigm of equality.”
While much progress has been made, “Unfortunately, we have dozed off in this false sense of security,” Stanford said.
Stanford drew parallels between the country’s present-day troubles and the challenges described by King during a 1965 speech in which he used the allegory of Rip Van Winkle – the legendary figure who slept for 20 years – as a wakeup call for America.
“We cannot stay asleep. We must stay awake,” Stanford said, imploring the audience to fight the racism, bigotry and hatred sweeping across the country.
“Ocean City, we must not slumber. We cannot afford to doze,” she added later in her remarks.
Her voice rising with emotion, Stanford repeatedly warned of a “not-so-silent monster rearing its ugly head” to threaten King’s legacy of racial harmony and equality.
“Dr. King said we must decide to stick with love,” she said.
Bringing the audience to a standing ovation, Stanford concluded her stirring remarks by quoting the last line of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Mayor Jay Gillian, who spoke before Stanford, praised Ocean City for its diversity. He noted that when he campaigned for mayor, he embraced King’s philosophy for a unified community as his platform.
“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” Gillian said, quoting one of King’s famous lines.
Attended by hundreds of Ocean City residents, local dignitaries and political leaders, the King ceremony included special honors for two people for their community service.
Robert Rowell, a 26-year Ocean City resident, was recognized for his volunteer efforts to clean up the community. Rowell, 65, mows the grass, picks up litter and helps the elderly residents at the Ocean City Housing Authority’s affordable-housing complexes.
“I will continue to do my duty the best way I know how,” Rowell told the audience after accepting his award.
Pastor Paul Jerkins, of the Shiloh Baptist Church, where Rowell is in training to become a deacon, praised Rowell for his love of the community.
“I’ve never seen anyone who works so hard and takes as much care as he does,” Jerkins said. “He puts his whole heart into everything he does.”
Also at the ceremony, Julia Wilson, an Ocean City High School freshman, was honored for her support of the local American Legion and VFW posts. Wilson, a vocalist, began singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in public when she was just 8 years old and has performed it 60 times since then.
“Thank you so much. I wasn’t counting,” Wilson said, expressing surprise that she has sung the national anthem so many times at public events.
Honors were also given to Ocean City Intermediate School students Christian Ganter, a seventh-grader, and Eddie D’Amico, who is in eighth grade, for their winning essays about King’s life.
Reading from his essay, D’Amico stressed that King’s spirit “could not be broken.” Ganter focused on King’s belief that the United States should be a place of racial harmony, “where you’re no longer judged by the color of your skin.”
The hour-long program closed with Michelle Anderson, a former Miss Ocean City and former Miss Delaware, leading the audience in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” which served as the anthem of America’s civil rights movement.
Afterward, a traditional soul food dinner was served free to the public in the high school cafeteria.
The Rev. Drena Garrett, Norine Bailey and Delores Rolls, all of the St. James AME Church, were dishing out plates of fried chicken and other comfort food to a steady stream of diners.
Garrett said she was guided by King’s spirit of generosity and kindness during her volunteer work for the dinner.
“I like to help people,” she said. “We are giving people an opportunity to taste food that they might not eat every day.”